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How to Approach Iran

Monday, December 13, 2004; Page A21

The following article was signed by Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, and by seven former foreign ministers: Robin Cook of Britain, Hubert Vedrine of France, Lamberto Dini of Italy, Lloyd Axworthy of Canada, Niels Helveg Petersen of Denmark, Ana Palacio of Spain and Jozias van Aartsen of the Netherlands.

Foreign ministers from France, Germany and Britain meet with Iran's top nuclear negotiator this week at a moment of enormous consequence. The United States will not be there, but the subtle signals it will send from a distance will have a tremendous impact on the outcome. There are some who believe that Washington expects, and perhaps hopes, that the talks will collapse altogether. But if the United States and Europe are to be successful in preventing a radical regime from gaining nuclear weapons, there will have to be much greater coordination and new approaches on both sides of the Atlantic.

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We are a group of former foreign ministers from Europe, Canada and the United States who are very concerned about the current state of transatlantic relations and the effect it is having on our ability to join together to address a number of global challenges. Halting Iran's nuclear ambitions is a case in point. We have met a number of times under the auspices of the Aspen Institute to consider why habits of cooperation are yielding to a psychology of competition and strain. We believe that genuine transatlantic cooperation is the only path to viable solutions.

As a result of the work of the British, French and German foreign ministers, the Iranians agreed last month to suspend their nuclear programs while negotiations for economic and technical cooperation take place. This agreement represents progress, but it will not be successful until Iran permanently suspends any attempt to create a nuclear weapons capacity. As people who have experienced firsthand the challenge of balancing carrots and sticks in these sorts of delicate and serious negotiations, we offer the following ideas on obtaining full cooperation from the Iranians.

First, the United States and Europe must be clear about their collective purpose. The Iranians have made splitting the Atlantic partnership their modus operandi, hoping that disagreements between the United States and Europe will buy them the time to progress down the nuclear path to the point of irreversibility. In order to counteract this strategy, European and U.S. policymakers must repeatedly and jointly articulate that they seek to hold Iran to the obligations it has accepted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to refrain from building nuclear arms. In the same breath, American and European heads of state must emphasize that the West does not seek to deny Iran the right to a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program under the necessary safeguards.

Second, the major nuclear suppliers (Russia, the United States and Europe) should provide a firm guarantee to supply fresh reactor fuel for civilian nuclear power and to retrieve and dispose of spent fuel in exchange for Iran's agreement to permanently forswear its own nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities, including enrichment, reprocessing, uranium conversion and heavy-water production.

Third, the Bush administration should support the recent agreement the three European countries negotiated with the Iranians as an important first step. While it is unclear whether this deal will ultimately halt Iran's nuclear ambitions, only a unified approach will enable Europe and the United States to find out. Washington should put its full support behind this diplomatic effort and consider launching commercial and diplomatic engagement with Iran. That country's political leadership and culture have changed dramatically over the past two decades and are much more complex than many realize. Understanding the various political operatives inside Iran and their motivations requires the United States to instigate face-to-face interaction. Doing so could bring direct benefits to the United States as disagreements over the nuclear question need not, for example, disrupt efforts to achieve cooperation on such matters as narcotics enforcement, Iraq, the fight against terrorism and peace in the Middle East.

If the Americans need to increase their support for diplomatic efforts, Europeans must prove to the Iranians that severe political and economic consequences will result if Iran does not renounce the nuclear weapons option. In the event that diplomacy fails and Iran decides not to abandon its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Europeans should be ready for alternative courses of action, including going to the U.N. Security Council, and they should repeatedly stress their willingness to act. The transatlantic community should not be trying to force a confrontation with Iran, but we must not fear one if that's what is necessary to prevent the introduction of another nuclear weapons program into the combustible Middle East.

The interests of every nation will be served by an arrangement that gives Iran the civilian nuclear program it says it wants and the international community the insurance it needs. Together, with sufficient patience and resolve, Europe and America must push as hard as possible to achieve that outcome and stand together, as well, in the event the effort does not succeed.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company